Winter is creeping around the corner, the holidays are swiftly approaching, and most of us are finished with our fall races. Recovery after a hard race, especially a half or full marathon, is vital, but once you’ve rested and recovered, what do you do next?
It is imprudent to train year-round without a break from rigorous training. To be rather blunt, pushing yourself to your limits over and over again, both in hard workouts and in the races themselves, will increase your risk of injury, plateau your training progress, and push you into mental and physical burnout known as overtraining. Sustainable running and progress in your training (PRs) develop out of a cycle of base building, training, racing, and recovering, as I learned in my RRCA coaching seminar. If you leave out the base building piece of the equation, your training and racing do not have a firm foundation to build upon and therefore will be less effective.
Winter is the perfect time to build your base! In most parts of the country, there are not many winter races, especially long distances races that demand lots of training. Since you’re not training for a big goal race, you should spend the winter months building a strong aerobic base. The stronger your aerobic base, the harder and smarter you can train for your goal races.
What exactly is base building? I discussed it in-depth previously, so to avoid repeating myself, I’ll provide you with a brief summary. All running, whether you’re running half of a mile or 26 miles, is an aerobic exercise, which means you use oxygen for energy. The more you run, you develop more efficient and stronger aerobic system, so your body is better at converting oxygen to energy and thus allows you to run farther and faster. Your aerobic system is most significantly strengthened at your easy run pace, so a period of mostly easy runs will help you increase your endurance and provide you with the aerobic base you need to take on more difficult training. With these following tips, you can optimize your base building this winter while allowing your body and mind time to recover and preparing yourself for spring training.
1. Increase your mileage to improve aerobic fitness.
Whether you consult Jack Daniels, Pete Pfitzinger, Brad Hudson, or even your local running coach, you will hear from them that your average weekly running volume has the most significant impact on your aerobic fitness. The more you run, the easier it becomes to run because your body has more time to physiologically adapt to running. Now, high mileage is relative to every runner based on your past training, your current fitness, and your risk of injury; during the base building period, you want to build your mileage gradually close to your peak volume for your next training cycle. This offers multiple benefits: it builds a strong base of aerobic fitness, it decreases your risk of injury during your next training cycle since you won’t build speed and mileage at the same time, and it provides you with an idea of where your fitness is so you can set smart training goals.
For example, if you are planning on averaging 45 miles per week in training for your next race, start from where your current mileage is and slowly add a few miles each week until you reach 40-45 miles of primarily easy running. You may think that this is a bit intense, since you’d be peaking at that mileage while training for a big race: however, by running that mileage during base building, your body adapts to it. When you add in demanding speed work such as intervals, tempo runs, and progression runs during training, your body will handle the mileage better and thus reap more benefits from the speed work. Essentially, if you can already run 40 miles at an easy pace each week, the demand of running 45 mile per week with 3 miles at your V02 max (5K pace) and 6-8 miles at your tempo pace is less on your body than if you were to jump to this level of training from only 25 miles per week. This also decreases your risk of injury, since doing too much too soon (i.e. adding in speed work and threshold training while increasing mileage) will likely lead to an overuse injury.
How do you do this? Say you are starting at 25 miles per week and want to average 45 miles per week during your next training cycle, as presented in the example above. Slowly build your mileage from 25 to 40-45 miles per week, with a cutback week every 3-4 weeks. Such a progression of weekly mileage may look like this for 8 weeks of base building: 25, 28, 30, 26, 33, 36, 32, 40. It’s not challenging to add three extra miles to your week when you’re already running 25 miles per week, and maintaining an easy pace for most of your runs will make these little jumps easier.
2. Become a more durable runner to prevent injury.
I notice every base building season that, even if I’m still running decent mileage, I have a lot more energy for supplemental workouts since I’m not pushing myself several times a week in hard running workouts. With the extra time and energy, add in weight lifting, mobility exercises, and flexibility training such yoga or Pilates.
Core strength, leg strength, glute strength, back strength, and hip mobility all play a significant role in proper running form. While I am not a physical therapist or a sports medicine doctor, as a running coach I can say that many running injuries do stem from muscular imbalances and/or poor running form. Almost everything in the human body connects through kinetic chains, so often knee injuries are related to weak hips and misfiring glutes. A strong and balanced body decreases your risk of running injuries.
If you’re the runner who is constantly injured after every race, there’s no time like the off-season to focus on building your physical durability. The best exercises for building durability and decreasing your risk of injury include single leg exercises, upper body and core work, mobility routines such as MYRTLs, and posture-enhancing exercises such as Pilates. Even if you made it through the past year with no running injuries, you will still benefit significantly through including these exercises – think of these as prehab to keep you out of rehab.
3. Reconnect with your love of running.
I wrote about this last year, even as I was running in the freezing temperatures and biting winds of northwest Indiana, but I cherish off-season and base building cycles as a time to reconnect with my love of running and the reasons why I pound the pavement on a daily basis. Set a range of miles to run each day (such as 3-5 or 8-10) to keep pressure off of yourself. Listen to your body, pace yourself by effort rather than your GPS watch, and just run. Use this time to find new routes, explore new trails, and possibly meet new running buddies. Most of all, practice disconnecting running from any external pressures you may place on yourself and embrace all that running gives you.
If you’re considering a running coach to help you optimize your base building, please be sure to check out my various e-coaching services and customized training plans!
Questions of the Day:
What would you add to this list? What do you do to make the most of your base building period?
When’s your next race?
What injury prevention exercises do you do?